The Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches (WCC) has consistently underlined the need for careful theological and practical guidelines for common prayer.
The focus of the discussion is interconfessional ecumenical worship, i.e., worship services at ecumenical gatherings which draw from a variety of prayer traditions. For innumerable people, the pastiche of interconfessional ecumenical worship is an element of liturgical and spiritual ecumenical life which they would not want to give up; others feel alienated or even offended by it.
"Orthodox Christians must wrestle with the question of whether or not the canons even permit us to pray together with non-Orthodox at all. Once that question is dealt with, and it is dealt with differently by different people, we have to grapple with how downright foreign interconfessional worship can seem to us," writes Peter Bouteneff of the Orthodox Church in America. In his essay, Bouteneff describes his own inner development, that led him finally to reconsider his original attitude.
As they are for Bouteneff, the tensions surrounding common prayer services are a cause of sadness for Bishop Rolf Koppe of the Evangelical Church in Germany as well. Koppe writes that "The reality that we cannot freely and joyfully go to meet one another, and assemble naturally for prayer as children of God before the face of the Father of us all, is and remains an open wound in the Body of Christ."
How, then, should we pray together in future? In his essay, Father K.M. George of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Malankara, India, offers some concrete proposals to try to advance the discussion of guidelines for common worship. This is exactly what Peter Bouteneff has in mind when, at the end of his essay, he comes to the optimistic conclusion that "the Special Commission has led some of us to re-think some of our long-held convictions, to take matters deeper, to find solutions which might make an enduring difference for the better."
Challenge is both positive and negative. On occasions I have found worship in ecumenical settings to be a moving, inspiring and God-praising experience. I also have witnessed less successful examples, such as when ecumenical worship is misdirected into a political statement, or when its attempts at diversity and inclusiveness approach absurdity, or even syncretism.
My aim here is to reflect on these matters both objectively and subjectively, as a life-long member of the Orthodox Church, as a decade-long observer and participant in ecumenical meetings, and as an erstwhile member of the World Council of Churches (WCC) staff and its worship committees.
Interconfessional worship - a hit-and-miss endeavour
Ecumenical worship, or more accurately interconfessional worship, is by nature something of a hit-and-miss endeavour for several reasons. Part of what we do in assembling diverse Christians for prayer is celebrate the very fact of that gathering. Sometimes we mark this by drawing from a variety of sources, across confessions and traditions. The problem is that it is very difficult to be at the same time broadly diverse, and also to achieve a prayer service that is inwardly consistent and coherent. The results can sometimes feel like eclecticism for its own sake.
Interconfessional worship tends to be prepared ad hoc by committees rather than emerge out of single traditions. This very fact contributes both to the assets - diversity, broad ownership, freshness - as well as to the liabilities - a potential for incoherence, superficiality, hackneyed trendiness - of the worship life of ecumenical gatherings.
The built-in nature of these problems has raised some basic objections to the way in which the WCC conducts the worship life at its meetings. These objections are voiced within a variety of traditions, but Orthodox participants raised such concerns from the outset, and more or less across the board. Orthodox Christians must wrestle with the question of whether or not the canons even permit us to pray together with non-Orthodox at all. Once that question is dealt with, and it is dealt with differently by different people, we have to grapple with how downright foreign interconfessional worship can seem to us.
Often when we raise such discomforts with aspects of the WCC's worship life, we are told that everybody feels discomfort with it. It is by nature something new, and also something eclectic. We are told that this very fact guarantees that there will inevitably be elements that feel foreign - to everyone. But this isn't really true. There are a great many ecumenists who not only feel comfortable with the way interconfessional ecumenical worship tends to be done, but thrive on it. They say that if the WCC were ever to decide to worship and to pray together in a way that loses the variety, the newness, and the eclecticism, they would opt out of it altogether. Hence, the great momentum is to keep the worship life of ecumenical meetings as it now is: as primarily interconfessional in character.
The alternative most commonly proposed by Orthodox and other contingents of Christians of similar leanings is to structure worship life in ecumenical settings along confessional lines: let "interconfessional worship" give way to "confessional worship". Enough fruit salad: let us enjoy each fruit in its turn. Give place to the different traditions, each of which has an inwardly consistent worship tradition with its own gifts and integrity.
Speaking now subjectively, my thoughts over the years on this question have undergone a certain evolution.
Pros and cons of interconfessional worship
The following points have informed my objections to interconfessional worship:
In my (Orthodox) tradition, corporate prayer is not composed ad hoc; it is fixed. An integral part of our spirituality is knowing where you are and where you are going at every point in a worship service: it is this very groundedness which frees the spirit to pray in an ever-fresh way. And since our prayers are also grounded in theology, often very explicitly - what we pray is what we believe, and vice-versa - this dependability of our prayer services is something vital to us.
"Ecumenical" or interconfessional worship is by nature an artificial enterprise. It means putting prayers and rites which were never intended to be together side by side. This can work brilliantly. But at its worst it can be a Benetton-esque melting-pot, where we throw things together arbitrarily, all the while congratulating ourselves for our expansive inclusiveness, our broad-mindedness, our post-modernity.
Furthermore, ecumenical prayer has begun to develop into a tradition of its own. And once the WCC has an ecumenical prayer tradition, a worship tradition, it risks behaving like an "ecumenical church", which is something dead-against the sensibilities of many of its constitutive traditions, including the Orthodox.
As to "confessional worship", it could be a vital way of "giving place" to each other's traditions. It lets prayers breathe within the context that produced them. It tends to guarantee an integrity - a flow and consistent sensibility which has stood the test of time within a particular context. Furthermore, it is one of the best ways that we can experience each other's Christian life and tradition. And finally, if we pray "confessionally" at ecumenical meetings - one morning at a Lutheran service, one morning at an Orthodox matins, one morning as do the Baptists - it may be a safeguard against some of the excesses, the syncretism and politicization which can arise in ecumenical worship.
These were the arguments which led me to advocate confessional worship as the norm in ecumenical settings. And many of these concerns remain valid and even vital. But experience - and some very perceptive and thoughtful people - have helped me to raise some significant questions and qualifications to the above impressions.
For example, confessional worship in ecumenical settings can be as artificial as "ecumenical" worship. Staging an Orthodox matins service, or a Quaker meeting, could easily become just that: staged, like a show in a theatre, not at all conducive to prayer. And who is to say that such experiences would be any less strange and foreign to the people gathered? Then there are questions such as, who decides what constitutes confessional integrity? Who decides what constitutes a "tradition"?
Moreover, once we give a morning over to this or that tradition, we cannot place restrictions on the theological or spiritual content of their prayers and rites. Within a group-designed ecumenical worship service, the Orthodox, together with other theologically conservative representatives, would reject, for example, the inclusion of prayers that name God as "Mother", or convocations which address the assembled Christians as the "Universal Church". But if the beliefs which would engender such formulations are held within the confessional tradition that is responsible for a prayer service, would it be possible or reasonable to censor them?
Interconfessional worship: the "prayer of divided Christians"
Such questions have made it increasingly evident to me that the problem of how to conduct our common prayer services will not find simple solutions. More importantly, it has become clear to me that the question is not whether to structure worship in ecumenical settings exclusively along either "confessional" or "interconfessional" lines. The point is rather to be as clear as possible as to what you are doing. If you are celebrating interconfessional worship, there ought to be no sense that this is the worship of an ecumenical church: it is the prayer of divided Christians, or of divided bodies of Christians. If you are celebrating the worship of your own confessional tradition, then name it as such.
Aside from such clarity, many kinds of guidelines could be helpful. For example, worship in ecumenical settings should be focused on God - in the language of the WCC Basis, on "Jesus Christ as God and Saviour ... to the glory of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Then, both theologically and in all other dimensions, common prayer services should make every effort not to offend those who are gathered to pray. Finally, whether confessional or interconfessional, prayer services should strive to avoid artifice and achieve a wholeness, a self-consistency, a harmonious flow.
The Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC is in the process of formulating recommendations on a broad spectrum of issues, including the worship life of the Council. If it can produce some universally acceptable guidelines for that worship life, it would be a most useful contribution to the ecumenical movement as a whole. But already, the Special Commission has led some of us to rethink some of our long-held convictions, to take matters deeper, to find solutions which might make an enduring difference for the better.
The author Dr Peter Bouteneff served for five years on the staff of WCC Faith and Order, and now teaches systematic theology and spirituality at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, in Crestwood, New York. He has followed the work of the Special Commission as a consultant.
But the Orthodox decision to stay away from shared acts of ecumenical worship had not been reconsidered. Taken at a conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, in May 1998 before the WCC Assembly, this decision was thus in need of further theological clarification. As the Steering Group said afterwards, "If we can't pray together we can't stay together." Why, we asked, should we be thinking so hard about membership, procedures and ways of voting, when the spiritual question of why we are joined together as Orthodox and Protestant churches in a council of churches remains unanswered?
After 11 September 2001 Jews, Christians and Muslims in New York, Brussels or Assisi could participate in interfaith celebrations and address their prayers to God in sequence or side by side. Yet it is still not clear whether Christians can pray together to God the Three in One, in whose name they have been baptized, in whose name they hold worship services, and in whose name they pray for the coming of Christ's Kingdom.
However incomprehensible it may be for outsiders, the fact is that for those who know the tradition and the present situation, the differences between the various doctrines of the nature and mission of the church are a fundamental cause for disagreement.
In the history of the Church and of the churches ever since the councils of the early centuries, this question has divided the Church, and later the churches of East and West. For the Protestant churches which came into being in the 16th century, the earlier condemnations were not directly relevant. Yet despite Protestant declarations that they go back to the early church and biblical tradition, they are not exempt from these issues.
Some in the church have experienced spiritual closeness and a theological rapprochement via dialogue which enables them to hold joint worship services and pray together almost as a matter of course. But as soon as the question is posed in its strict sense, we find that these practices based on living together are not covered either by the theology of liturgy or, and especially not, by that of the ministry.
It must be noted that not all Orthodox representatives support this strict interpretation, so that there is hope that ways may be found out of this theological dead end.
But voices asking how long such a process of clarification still needs to go on have been growing louder. Some of them, including mine, are Protestant. Would it not be more honest to admit that we cannot bridge this essential gap and, after 50 years together, to agree to an amicable separation? After which we could still meet as friends, for example, in the form of an Orthodox world alliance on one hand and a Protestant world alliance on the other?
But again, many have not given up hope that we can come together in "lay worship services", that is, in a form recognized by all confessions and in which the church is not represented by the ordained clergy but rather by representatives of God's people who gather together to praise God with prayer and singing.
Whatever is proposed to the Central Committee in August after three years of consultation on this matter by the Special Commission, the reality that we cannot freely and joyfully go to meet one another and assemble naturally for prayer as children of God before the face of the Father of us all is and remains an open wound in the Body of Christ.
The author, Bishop Rolf Koppe, has been head of the Department of Ecumenical Affairs and Ministries Abroad of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) since 1993. From 1984 till 1988 Bishop Koppe was press officer of the EKD and publications adviser in the Church Office of the EKD. Thereafter he served as regional superintendent for the Göttingen district of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover. Bishop Koppe is co-moderator of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC.
The Orthodox Tradition makes some basic distinctions in the matter of "prayer". It distinguishes between sacramental liturgy or worship, canonical Prayer of the Hours, and personal prayer and devotional practices. An example of the first is the Holy Eucharistic celebration of the community. Other sacramental celebrations derive their meaning from the Eucharist. An example of the second is morning and evening prayers conducted in parish churches, monasteries and seminaries. Shortened forms are used in family prayers in certain places. And personal prayer and devotional practices may draw from a broad range of canonical prayers, spiritual writings of the Fathers, and various practices like, for example, the "Jesus Prayer".
The Common Prayer in current "ecumenical settings" may be loosely considered along with canonical Prayer of the Hours, because
The answer is that we may deal with the "new" challenge of common prayer on the basis of the principles of liturgical wisdom received from the Christian Tradition. From an Orthodox perspective, I would consider the following as basic elements in any common prayer:
Sobriety and general acceptance should be the guiding principles. For example, the cross is a unique symbol communicating the mystery of God's incarnation and our salvation. The liturgical books often call it "the tree" and tell us that "Jesus was hanged on a tree". From created nature to the tree of life, from Jacob's ladder to the axis mundi, this unique cross-tree symbolizes the personal and cosmic dimensions of our Christian faith and salvation. Suppose that some eco-cosmic-enthusiasts, while disregarding this traditional symbol of the cross, uproot a whole young tree and bring it into the chapel for worship (as has happened in some places). This would violate the principles of ecology, sobriety and general acceptance, and embarrass a lot of people! Yet we should be open to new symbols as our contexts are constantly changing.
The common prayer par excellence
The common prayer par excellence is nothing other than the Lord's Prayer. The beauty and universality of this prayer, taught by Christ, is unparalleled. I have seen Hindus and Muslims praying it together with Christians, without necessarily subscribing to the Christian doctrines. Does any Christian have the right to exclude them from the prayer our Lord gave to humanity?
It further illustrates a principle that Christian prayer is for all and on behalf of all. A church which prays "with the sun and the moon and the stars, with the earth and the oceans, with the angels and archangels, with the Seraphim and Cherubim..." (Syriac St. James Liturgy) can only pray inclusively.
Any elaboration of common prayer should take the Lord's Prayer as its principle. One should also be aware of certain groups who manipulate occasions of ecumenical prayer in order to cater to their sectarian agendas. This sort of manipulation may be the reason for a strong negative reaction to common prayer in some circles.
Father Kondothra M. George is a lecturer at the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Kottayam Kerala, India. He is an ordained minister of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in Kottayam. He was a member of the faculty of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, outside Geneva, from 1989-94, has been a member of the WCC Central Committee since 1998, and is moderator of the Programme Committee of the WCC Central Committee.
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